Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Module 7 (Mar 12)

Aesthetic Representation I
P. Radhika

(Click here for the PDF version of the module)

This module will deal with the understanding of aesthetic practice, rather cultural practice, through the lens of the political.


Cultural Practice and the Social

The relationship between cultural practice and the social has been variously posed in literary criticism. Let us understand this relation through a reading of a short poem, “Chupulu” by Jayaprabha. See the link GP attachments\Chupulu.doc

There might be two kinds of responses, one that sees the poem as unworthy of even being seen as a work of art. It is not aesthetic enough because it does not have complex rhyme scheme and is further ‘contaminated’ by the social. This is one of the dominant criticisms that sees the aesthetic as a pure object, untouched by the social and historical. It stresses on the formal qualities of a text. These critics would argue that we need to understand a cultural text only for its aesthetic value.

If you want to read more about the idea of an aesthetic, see its definition and history in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at

The other response to the poem, made by say feminist critics, would see the value of the text not for its aesthetics but for its social relevance. It would say that the poem should not be defined by aesthetic standards of beauty and form but because it discusses a social problem that women face. Some strands of this criticism would dismiss the need to understand the aesthetic contours of a text at all.

I suggest that we need to understand the relationship between cultural practice and the social in a far more complex manner. We need to move away from the first response that emphasizes the aesthetic to the exclusion of the social. We need to bring in the social however not to the exclusion of the aesthetic (Response 2) but through a re-definition of the aesthetic. We will attend to the social but through the cultural contours. I say cultural contours and not aesthetic contours because as we will see below the notion of aesthetic carries a set of connotations that we need to depart from.

Culture and the Political

Conventionally politics is seen as outside of the aesthetic. However, in practice politics has always been tied to aesthetic practice. If we look at the term ‘aesthetic’ itself, we will find that it carries connotations of culture that mark it as different from, for instance, popular culture.

See and analyse the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip: GP attachments\Calvin & Hobbes.doc How will you read the comic-strip text in conjunction with the comic-strip?

Historically, there has always been a disjunction between popular art and high art, what is deemed to be an aesthetic object. We need to however mark departures from that binary, just as we need to move away from the binary between the social and the aesthetic approaches.

We will read the socio-political through cultural practice in a way that will account for both the socio-political and the particular representational histories that the cultural text is a part of. In this module we will examine the production of gender—ideas of masculinity and femininity—one, in the period of colonialism and two, in contemporary times

2. Colonialism and the Production of the Feminine

Let us look at ideas of femininity, as well as masculinity that were produced in the colonial period through the following set of paintings:

Understanding Femininity

Slide 1: Oxford Dictionary definition on the social construction of gender

The central idea conveyed by this definition is that femininity is not an inherent quality of womanhood but is a set of meanings produced and organized in a culture, something that you discussed in Module 1 (Refer to Module 1 Notes)

However, it is not as though femininity is a set of rules in the social realm, which we simply imbibe or are socialized into. We need to think about gender, i.e., femininity and masculinity as performance, where performance has to be understood as a two-way process: It is through the performance of femininity, that the Ideal Feminine comes into being just as the performance is also influenced (though not fully determined) by the normative idea of the Feminine. In the words of Butler:

Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that 'performance' is not a singular 'act' or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance. (Butler 1993, 95).

For more, see extracts from Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, London, 1993,

In trying to understand how the Ideal Feminine comes into being, let us probe how femininity is constructed on one of the sites of culture—that of painting. In our analyses of femininity, it is not useful to merely ask whether this is a ‘good’ image or ‘bad’ image of femininity but to think about how the images we see are tied to ideas such as nationalism, modernity and tradition circulating within the context. Such an understanding might complicate a commonsensical notion of agency that we sometimes use.

What I will attempt below is a working out of the relationship between femininity and modernity, nationalism and tradition in the Indian context:

Let me clarify the concept of modernity before we see the paintings. One of the ways in which modernity has been understood can be seen in the division between traditional (Asian societies) vs. modern (Western societies), where the former is seen as regressive and backward and the latter as progressive and developed.

Another understanding of modernity put forward by post-colonial scholars refers to the ways of thinking, institutional structures, changes which were sought to be brought about in India, beginning in the 19th century. One such idea that gets re-formed is that of femininity. Please recollect from Module 1, the relationship between woman and culture that came to be in the colonial period (Refer to Module 1 Notes). Let me reiterate the point by looking at two arguments that speak about this change (Please refer to the prescribed essays by Partha Chatterjee and Susie Tharu posted on the gender and culture blog):

Partha Chatterjee’s argument:

The confrontation between colonial and nationalist discourse
The production of inside/home/spiritual x outside/world/material
Woman as the bearer of tradition

Respectable Indian woman vs. Excessively Western woman
Respectable Indian woman vs. Working class/Lower caste woman

Susie Tharu’s argument:

The de-legitimisation of the eroticism of Sadir and a production of a femininity which gets embodied in the new cultural form of Bharatnatyam.

Now, let us look at some late 19th-early 20th century paintings and place it besides Partha Chatterjee’s argument to understand the production of femininity at that time. Before we begin the analysis, I suggest that we should understand femininity not merely within a masculinity x femininity ‘binary’ [subordination/ oppressor-oppressed model]. Instead let us think of this relationship through ‘difference’, further not merely the masculinity x femininity relationship but also differences in femininity itself.

I will argue how the paintings present a more contestatory model of the hegemonic. This is not to posit a ‘plurality’ but to provide a more complex understanding of the hegemonic itself.

Link to ppt: GP attachments\CULTURE & FEMININITYfinal.PPT

See the following Ravivarma paintings:

Slide 2: Hindu Maratha Lady
Slide 3: Portrait of a Lady
Slide 4: Gypsy Family

Now see the following Kalighat paintings:

Slide 5: Portrait of a Woman
Slide 6: Respectable Woman Dressing
Slide 7: Fisherwoman
Slide 8: Courtesan trampling on her Lover

If we read the paintings of both Ravivarma and Kalighat, we get Chatterjee’s argument about a valourisation of a ‘respectable femininity’ differentiated along class lines. Also, there is a valourisation of tradition (and mythology as we will see later) in Ravivarma’s paintings. If we look at the Kalighat paintings there is a condemnation of promiscuity, association of lower class/caste woman as promiscuous and degenerate just as with the gypsy woman who is emaciated, poverty stricken with many dirty children.

Now see the following Abhanindranath paintings:

Slide 9: Gita-Govinda
Slide 10: Sita in Captivity

The paintings of Abhanindranath Tagore too seem to emphasise a representation of mythological characters:

Is this a representation of reality? Or is it a mode by which femininity gets constructed?

The questions for these painters in the 19th century were: how do we represent (=show) Indian femininity? Who will represent (=representative of) Indian femininity? Additionally and importantly, the question was also what should be the content of Indian art?

If we look for an answer to these questions through these paintings, we find there are both similarities and differences among them. Though all the paintings represent ‘respectable femininity’ through the middle class woman and that which is not respectable/representable of Indianness through the lower class woman—an equation that was becoming dominant at that time—these paintings are also very different from one another. The woman that we see in Ravivarma is voluptuous and full bodied; something that we also see in the Kalighat painting. But the Ravivarma painting seems to be more aesthetic, more sensuous that the Kalighat painting where the women are full-bodied but not ‘sensuous’. The manner in which they sit is not typically feminine. The Kalighat painting, which was a satire on Westernised Bengali middle class society, not only disapproves of the courtesan but also the degenerate babu, the middle class Bengali male. If we look at Abhanindranath’s paintings, the woman is skinny. The emphasis is not on her body but on spirituality.

If we look at the debates which were going on in the late 19th century, till even the 1910s, Ravivarma symbolized the essence of Indian art, both in his depiction of mythological characters and in his realist representation of people (unlike the two-dimensional Kalighat painting). But with the rise and consolidation of a nationalist movement after the 1910s, Abhanindranath displaced Ravivarma as the one to represent Indian art with his emphasis on the spiritual and the underplaying of the erotic and sensuous woman.

See Slide 11: Ravivarma’s ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’

Find below one of the criticisms of Ravivarma’s ‘Arjuna and Subhadra’ where Subhadra’s portrayal is condemned:

Not every scene is fit for a a country in which that posture is held to be ill-bred, every home contains a picture of a fat woman lying full length on the floor and writing a letter on a lotus leaf! As if a sight that would outrage the decorum in actuality, could be beautiful in imagination! In a country in which romantic emotion is never allowed to show itself in public, pictures of Arjuna and Subhadra abound. (Thakurta The Making of a New Indian Art)

This undermining of the sensuous and the erotic in the representation of woman is something that Tharu and Lalita’s essay discuss. This finally culminates in the transfiguration of the woman as motherland.

Slide 12-Slide 15: Bharatmata paintings

In this debate the Kalighat painting was marginalized and was never seen as worthy of representing Indian art, either in the late 19th century or later. It surfaced briefly in the 1920s when Abhanindranath appropriated it to showcase authentic India through her folk. However by then the genre itself had died.

I want to argue that though Abhanindranath became representative of nationalist art, it was not an uncontested position. There were arguments for Ravivarma that pointed out that sensuousness and eroticism were part of Indian tradition.

More important, there was a further reframing of Ravivarma in popular art when ads, calenders and cinema—the classic example being the courtesan in Phalke—used his imaging of the woman.

Slide 16: Ad for Baby Food with Ravivarma’s ‘Birth of Shakuntala’

We see above how Ravivarma’s paintings get appropriated and travel in an entirely different circuit, thus skewing the hegemonic x marginal binary.

I want to finally leave you with a few contemporary images of femininity. What is the relationship between women and tradition posed in them?

Slide 17: Nalini Malani’s ‘Rethinking Ravivarma-1’ which is a take on
Slide 18: Ravivarma’s ‘Galaxy of Musicians’
Slide 19: Nalini Malani’s ‘Rethinking Ravivarma-2’
Slide 20: Karnataka Chief Minister’s Defence of the Beauty Contest

3. Masculinity and Kannada Identity Politics

In this section, we will look at the construction of masculinity, as well as femininity, in the following songs that have been visualised around Rajkumar:

Naavaduva Nudiye Kannada Nudi
Jenina Holeyo Halina Maleyo
Naaniruvude Nimagagi, Naadiruvudu Namagagi
Huttidare Kannada Nadal Huttabeku
Janarinda naanu mele bandhe/Janaranne nanna devarende

Popular Cinema and Politics

We need to understand popular cinema and music as linked to politics, not necessarily in terms of power and party formation, as with MGR and NTR but in terms of formations of identity and subjectivity. One such question that is central to the Kannada region is that of Kannada identity. I draw on Madhava Prasad’s articles to delineate the construction of Kannada identity

When we think about questions of identity in the Indian context, in a sense, we can see national identity as the first articulation of identity-self determination with its liberal slogan of universal freedom and equality. Kannada identity and other regional identities are seen as not universal but local/cultural, both for its supporters and its opposition. However we need to see Kannada identity as also a modern identity.

Kannada Identity-A Modern Identity

A modern Kannada identity has its beginnings with colonialism, with the attempt to modernize Kannada by missionaries, colonial administration (dictionaries) and Kannada literary scholars like B.M.Srikantiah.

During the phase of Indian nationalism we find Kannada writers who were trying to reconstruct histories of the region. One such writer was Galaganatha who wrote historical novels that celebrated the glorious period of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Subsequently, the kingdom was ravaged by the Muslims thus marking a slow decline in the Kannada land. Another such writer was Alur Venkata Rao who wrote Karnataka Gatha Vaibhava. Here Kannada identity is parallel with Indian identity in constructing itself in opposition to Muslim rule. Modern print literature can also be seen as constructing this identity, not so much through content but in form.

When we arrive at the period of post-independence in Karnataka, we need to mark the unification of the Mysore state in 1956, which then came to be called Karnataka. During this phase, it is cinema that becomes the site of construction of Kannada identity. In what ways this occurs is something we will discuss below.

Before we move into that discussion, I would like to merely point to the phase of globalization, where the focus has shifted to the Kannada NRI, evidenced in films like America America. There is, however, a simultaneous assertion of cultural identity, seen in the change of the name Bangalore to Bengaluru or in the formation of new vocal Kannada organizations like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike.

Stars in South Indian Cinema: Representing Linguistic National Identity

When we ask the question of how stars emerge, some of the common responses are that cinema captivates the people and the illiterate masses mistake the reel for the real. Let me provide below a different reading.

We need to situate the emergence of the star phenomenon in the formation of a Kannada identity. This regional/linguistic identity formation is to be seen as parallel to the formation of the nation. After the initial debate on whether we should have a federation of nationalities like the Soviet Union or a nation with a Hindu state, what was chosen was the latter but within a secular model. Thus, we have the idea of a ‘nationalism’, as a complement to which ‘regionalism’ or ‘regional nationalism’ is constructed and gains meaning. It is within this contradiction of nationalist identity, as part of the political-ideological history of India that we need to situate the importance of South Indian cinema and the rise of stars like ‘Rajkumar’, as a site for an articulation of a regional nationalism. This is a particular link between politics and cinema in the Southern states that is absent in the North.

The symbolic importance that Rajkumar held was evident when the Gokak agitation, arguing for the primacy of Kannada in education, got a massive push when he joined it in the 1980s. Hence we need to see Rajkumar’s task as that of political representation, whether party or not is unimportant.

Let us see how Rajkumar becomes entrusted with this task. Rajkumar who was called Muthuraju and acted in Bedara Kannappa in 1953 was a significant figure in the theatre company itself. He held a symbolic significance and was known for his versatile acting.
With cinema, there were both, an attention to the actor’s presence, his face, his physical details and the fact that the same image was being seen across a linguistic region. In Ranadheera Kanteerava (1960), for example, when Rajkumar says, “Geleya Kannadigare Swagathavu Nimage” he is not only showing Karnataka’s past glory but also interpellating and appealing to the sense of a Kannada belonging. This sense of a linguistic community was built around the cinema. It was not as though film-makers and actors exploited the power of the cinematic image or that the popular hero influenced the people. It was instead the former that were responding to the latter.

This is the rise of the star system—the doubling of the actor’s persona, where the persona that survives is greater than the individual appearance of the actor. It is not that the people believe that the star is superhuman but that they appreciate his versatile acting. One actor is thus given this primary status and the others are accorded a secondary status.

Initially, fans’ associations involved themselves with social welfare activities and fans would imitate the star but increasingly the star held a symbolic value. It was as though the fan was acting in the name of the star positioned as a leader, something that is taken on but also thrust upon the star. This is the shift in the nature of relationship from the bhakta to the abhimani.

There were new developments in the cinematic space too with the rise of the star: the comedian was subordinated to the hero and became identified with the fan. In the relationship between the hero and heroine, if the earlier father-figure represented traditional and patriarchal values, now the hero embodied new patriarchal values: he was both the lover and the paternal figure preaching morals. His ‘love for his sister’ whom he should protect became a new and important theme. Also, the hero now transcends the family to protect the new community that he is forging. All these then become settings for the new project of political representation.

In the manner in which the star system gets organized, it is the male stars who represent linguistic identity and the women become ‘exchangeable objects’ as it were. This is evidenced in the fixity of actors on the one hand and the movement of actresses on the other hand.

Thus, changes within and outside of the diegetic space prepare South Indian cinema and the stars within for a new task of representation. In the absence of the regional state’s articulation of Kannada nationalism post-independence and where the regional state is the mirror of the centre, cinema becomes the site of articulating Kannada nationalism. In this context, the songs that we are going to hear and watch are important as the site of the production of Kannada identity.

Construction of Masculinity and Kannada identity

Let us try to examine the construction of Kannada identity and ideas of masculinity-femininity within through a reading of the lyrics and watching the visualizations of the songs. Please refer to the link to the lyrics and translation of the songs: GP attachments\Rajkumar songs.doc


Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex". New York: Routledge, 1993.

Madhava Prasad “Cinema as a site of Nationalist Identity Politics in Karnataka.” Journal of Karnataka Studies, No. 1, November 2003-April 2004.

-----. “Cine-Politics: On the Political Significance of Cinema in South India.” Journal of the Moving Image. No. 1, 1999.

Partha Chatterjee. “Nationalist Resolution of the Woman Question.” Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. Eds. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.

Susie Tharu and K.Lalita. “Empire, Nation and the Literary Text.” Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993.

Tapati Guha Thakurta. The Making of a New Indian Art: artists, aesthetics, and nationalism in Bengal, c. 1850-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


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